The internet can be a big employee time waster. About once or twice a month I get a call from a business owner asking how they can either monitor their employee’s computer usage or prevent them from wasting time on various web sites. Monitoring and content filtering software are available to do this, but using these solutions should be weighed against your corporate culture. The costs and benefits of monitoring and managing internet access can be huge, but the problem can also be managed using a human approach, by doing a combination of coaching and leading. I call content management software the Big Brother approach after the quote “Big brother is watching you” from George Orwell’s book 1984. Many small business owners like the idea of being able to view their employee’s desktop, but it can lead to employee resentment and lost productivity when implemented without their buy-in. An alternative is the “Big Sister” approach, which means creating a culture of trust by sitting down with employees and educating them about the conditions or time frames they’re free to use the internet for personal things. The big sister approach can work well for small groups of professionals. Either way, you should also have a written “acceptable use policy” to cover inappropriate computer use for things like porn and sending jokes that are sexist, racist or could be misinterpreted. The big brother approach is often needed for schools, large organizations, or those subject to regulatory restrictions like HIPAA. Big brother is also needed for anyone with a serious need to protect corporate assets.
One of the solutions we use when employee monitoring is needed is Spector 360, a software package that is purchased for about $115 “per seat”. Multiply this by the number of employees, and figure about an hour of labor per workstation to get the software set up and you’ll have a good idea of the cost. The software can be installed in stealth mode, providing complete transparency to the user, who is unaware that is on his machine. This is legal given the machines are owned by the business, but we recommend having employees sign an acceptable use document that states that monitoring may be done. This investment will pay for itself by allowing the manager to centrally monitor and even manage computer use from his desk. Regular or periodic screen shots can be taken of the employee’s screens, allowing for a security camera Digital Video Recorder (DVR) type playback. Logs can be created and reports produced to answer questions like which employees spend the most time surfing web sites, which is spending time on what sites, who uses chat or anonymous email, and much more. Other, less expensive packages are also available to install on “problem” machines on a case by case basis. Tools like this can significantly increase productivity, allow investigation into violations of acceptable use policies, and protect against data theft (studies show 1 in 5 employees will print or copy company data in the days leading up to their resignation). In one High School the software was configured to create and email reports automatically any time inappropriate words were used. This included, for example, swear words inside .doc files or in any software on 700 desktops across the school. Administrators were able to discipline students and word got around, greatly reducing problems.
Content filtering is another class of productivity tool. Filters will limit access to websites to those needed for business. We often implement this using a SonicWall router but many other products are available depending on the needs of the client. The content filter allows us to either create a whitelist of sites that are OK to use, or blacklist specific sites that aren’t. While effective, this technique sometimes produces employee frustration when they have previously had free access. In some cases a new site is needed for legitimate business use and yet can’t be accessed until someone with the password has added it to the white list. The difficulties associated with aggressive filtering came to light when I implemented it in my own house to protect our children. My teenage daughter came to me complaining that she couldn’t access her favorite swimsuit shopping site. This shopping site was lumped into one of the unacceptable use categories, probably because of the pictures of scantily clad swimsuit models. I found myself slowly white listing sites, and then unblocking whole categories (ie shopping, photography etc). After 6 months of frustration (for both me and the children) we ended up taking the “big sister” approach with our kids. We basically said “OK if you go to bad places then we’re shutting the whole thing down”. At least with the content filtering I was able to put a schedule that automatically shut down Internet usage at 10pm each night. This helped reduce late nights of online gaming.
A third and incredibly important business productivity tool we use is the spam filter. I’m constantly amazed at the number of small business owners who suffer silently with hundreds of spam messages each day. Multiply the number of minutes you spend reading and deleting spam by how many employees you have and you realize that attempting to use the free spam filters (that don’t work or integrate with outlook well) are not cost effective. Like anti-virus software, no spam filter is perfect, but along with regularly unsubscribing to unwanted newsletters, it can help control most of the volume. Spam filters run about $2-$5 per person per month, but pay for themselves quickly. The goal is to receive as little email as possible without false positives (which means rejecting customer email that you want to receive).
Each of these three productivity enhancement techniques (Monitoring, website blocking, and spam filtering) can help control wasted employee time. To the list we should probably add workstation backup, anti-virus, and anti-spyware tools. The average virus slows a machine down for weeks, causes 8-14 hours of actual down time, and costs another 4 hours for IT staff to fix. The hard cost of these tools are arguably less than the soft costs associated with lost productivity. Just make sure employees understand the reason for any changes in their access.
Darren McBride is CEO of Sierra Computer Group, a Reno based IT and Network Consulting firm